Purely Piano

Iverson, Iyer, and Moran Go It Alone at the Jazz Standard

In addition to being close in age and crossing their conservatory techniques with pop fancies, Iverson, Iyer, and Moran reflect the influence of pianists overlooked in the '60s and '70s, when every keyboard player seemed under the sway or Evans, Tyner, or Taylor, or, later, Hancock, Corea, or Jarrett. Now we keep hearing talk of and works by Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, and Muhal Richard Abrams, plus the earlier stride hierarchy, not to mention Ellington, whose The Queen's Suite evidently has a special resonance. Jason Moran's selection from it at the Jazz Standard was "Sunset and the Mocking Bird," during a set that never completely abandoned a jazz groove, or a sanguine originality, even as he employed such devices as Horace Silver vamps, Monk dissonances, and partying stride; on the autobiographical "Gentle Shifts South," he added taped family voices. He doesn't use the tape for the version on Modernistic (Blue Note), but he has enough other rabbits in his hat. Indeed, this is one of the most rigorously unpredictable and rewarding solo piano albums in years.

Moran takes liberties, and the album has something to please or offend everyone. Consider four of the pieces he didn't write. The album title derives from James P. Johnson's 1930 recording, "You've Got to Be Modernistic," which the composer played at tremendous velocity, as a succession of 16-bar strains. Johnson is one of the founders of a jazz piano style that goes beyond Harlem; it hews to melodic embellishments, something the players in the Jazz Standard series appreciate. They are as free as they want to be, yet incline toward a variational fidelity. Thus Moran polished Johnson's key theme even as he opened it up after each four-bar section with echoes of the last-played phrase, giving his reading an asymmetrical impulsiveness, with starts and stops, despite the stride underpinning. His "Body and Soul" may be the only genuinely new attack since Sarah Vaughan's 1978 duet with Ray Brown, which begins with the bridge. Working exclusively with the song's first melodic idea, Moran never plays the bridge at all. And so sure is he in working and reworking the hook, tied to an ostinato, that you don't mind its absence. Near the end, he suddenly erupts with a full-bore arpeggio; in that one gesture, he lets you know how much piano history he commands.

Jason Moran takes liberties.
photo: Robert Hale
Jason Moran takes liberties.

On "Planet Rock," Moran uses dubs and reversed tape—it's a different planet than Bill Evans's Conversations With Myself—to set up the melody, which he interprets almost as an anthemic lullaby, a radio tune stuck in your head. As an addendum, he adds a two-minute pensée on a beat he contrived for the arrangement. Covering all bases, he essays Schumann's "Auf einer Burg," from the second Liederkreis cycle, as a popular song—two 18-bar episodes with a four-bar transition. Moran plays the simple tune with a solemn loveliness, adding subtle variations in the harmony, which becomes a kind of chord progression for his second chorus. At that point he embellishes the theme with rhythmic interest, yet never breaks the spell. He follows it with "Gentle Shifts South," and in this context his own melody emerges as an inversion of Schumann's, sustaining its lyrical mood. Modernistic is a remarkable album.

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